Strange contrasts pervade the choreography of Tao Ye. The soft tranquility inherent in the purity of his movement is only executed through a vigorous military discipline that gives the air of an efficient parade ground drill. All his work seems minimalist and yet, when considered in detail, each piece contains a universe of complexity. Narrative is so absent that these works come from a sequence identified by number alone; the digit indicating both chronology and personnel, and yet a thousand stories seem to unfold in the fluid movement. Tao has no discernible choreographic style – these works are so dissimilar that they could have been choreographed by different people – and yet his choreography appears to be governed by a robust system of movement blocks dominated by arcs and cycles in the body, such as sweeping shoulders, twisting torsos, rotating wrists. The literal translation of his company’s Chinese title is the TAO Body Theater, but western promoters have preferred a more traditional name.

<i>4</i> © Tao Ye
4
© Tao Ye

Tao began the numerical sequence with 2 – a duet – and this welcome return to Sadler’s Wells brought 4 and 9, the former being a revisit with a work that was once performed in the Lilian Baylis Studio; and the latter a UK premiere of Tao’s latest work. It will be interesting to see how far the sequence progresses (Tao is on record as saying 9 might be the last – if he keeps going, 99 would be a stretch).

4 is an absorbing marathon of dance. Four androgynous performers, dressed identically in baggy grey tops and even baggier, multi-layered dark trousers that appeared as if skirts, and wearing close-fitting masks, moved as if one organism split into quarters but still connected by a single brain, without any appreciable break in their momentum for a full 30 minutes (it seemed longer). For much of this time they maintained a simple diamond formation, eating the space like a greedy Pac-Man consuming imaginary pellets, retaining the full precision of their shape and spatial relationship while performing identical movements in perfect unison. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this dance is that the four performers never once touch, nor do they break into solos or duets, relentlessly maintaining their fluid movement in rigid formation. The only change came with the growing patches of sweat that darkened the shoulders of their grey tunics and even these alterations to the uniform seemed to happen uniformly.

<i>4</i> © Fan Xi
4
© Fan Xi

9 is an altogether different work. With 4, Tao clearly set one dance on four performers, but in 9 it seems that he set nine dances individually and then brought them together. The dancers mostly move separately, still essaying largely circular movements with every part of their bodies; a particular emphasis being on their necks and upper bodies, the cyclical actions often taking the dancers off-balance and then moving them collectively to occupy different spaces. There is also a greater tendency to move on parts of the body other than the feet, circling on knees and rolling on the torso, for example. Similarity with 4 comes in this notion of the dancers being controlled by some emergent force. Where the 4 moved as one, the movements of the 9 are still somehow connected, regularly repetitive and, as if by some collective instinct, suddenly coming together in harmony.

<i>9</i> © Fan Xi
9
© Fan Xi

The grey tones of the dancers’ costumes, near identical shaved heads and the masks in 4 make it impossible to identify any individual dancers and it is clear that homogeneity and anonymity is the mantra for this troupe. All dancers are extraordinary beings but those of TAO Dance Theater appear to be super-human in terms of their intuitive understanding of space, their magnetic relationship to other bodies moving in the same or different trajectories and in their Olympian flexibility and balance.

The absorbing mathematical challenge of both works is a rigorous test of the viewer’s concentration. Even a momentary distraction – and some people broke the spell by walking out of the auditorium (in one case with the uncaring rudeness of unnecessary noise) – could throw the mesmeric quality of the work out of kilter and it is then difficult to reset the focus.

Tao works in close collaboration with the composer Xiao He who has created soundscapes that resonate in many ways with the choreography, sometimes flowing with it but also occasionally abrasively in opposition. The music incorporates repetitive vocals, which – especially in 9 – often sound like bol, the mnemonic phrases used recitatively in kathak. This link to kathak reminds me to say that any reference to Chinese dance as a means of describing Tao’s work would be inappropriate. This is pure contemporary dance that is global in context. It seems to have no boundaries. And a purer form of co-ordinated dance would be harder to imagine, and harder still to experience.

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